A SERMON BY THE LATE PETER MARSHALL
In his column “Day Book” in the Washington Times-Herald Tris Coffin described Peter Marshall’s “The American Dream” as “one of the great documents of recent times.” Dr. Marshall got the idea for his sermon from Norman Corwin’s war-time radio program, We Hold These Truths. It is reprinted here by permission of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., publishers of Catherine Marshall’s A Man Called Peter.
During the Second World War, I met on the train a lieutenant who had just returned from fighting in Italy.
He had been in the North African campaign.
He had fought in Sicily.
He wore the Purple Heart ribbon with his campaign ribbons.
I asked him what he thought of America.
It was a hard question to ask a man who had been gone so long,
who had been fighting for his country …
who had been wounded in action …
It was almost an impertinence.
He said that after what he had seen in North Africa and in Italy, he appreciated America more than ever.
He described the filth and the squalor of the cities he had seen …
He spoke of Tunis and Bizerte …
He told me of his impression of the Arabs and the natives of North Africa.
He had been deeply impressed with their misery and their slums.
I asked him some rhetorical questions, not expecting answers but rather to make him think, and to divert his attention from the bottle of rum in his raincoat pocket which, he had told me, he intended to finish between Roanoke and Washington.
“What is America?” I asked.
“What were you fighting for?
Did anyone in North Africa ever ask you that question? If they had, what would you have said?”
I venture to say that deep down in the hearts of the men who fought the bitterest battles—of them who died—there was a glimmering of an understanding that the things for which they fought were somehow all tied up in one bundle of ideals
that we call the American Dream.
It is a Dream that has shone brightly at times and that has faded at other times.
World events today are forcing us, whether we realize it or not, to rediscover the meanings and the significances of the things that make America different from other nations …
the hope of a world weary of war, heartsick and hungry.
What is the American Dream?
What is it that makes our country different?
Do you know … you who fought for it overseas …
who braved the sniper in the jungle,
who flew through flak-filled skies,
who waded through the mud of Italy,
who knew the heat of the desert sun and the cold of the North Atlantic?
Do you know … you who made your speeches in Congress and waxed eloquent on the stump?
Do you know … you who boast of your ancestry and your membership in patriotic societies?
What is America?
Where is our country going?
Let no answer be lightly made.…
We cannot speak with any truth or realism about the future unless we understand the past.
What has America to give the rest of the world?
If only grain
or armaments …
then we have already lost the war and the peace … and our own souls.
Ours is a Covenant Nation …
The only surviving nation on earth that had its origins in the determination of the Founding Fathers to establish a settlement
“to the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.”
That was what William Bradford and George Carver had in mind when, beneath the swinging lantern in the cabin of the Mayflower, they affixed their signatures to the solemn declaration which established the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
They had come from the Old World and were seeking refuge in the New.
They had come from tyranny and oppression …
They had come from fear and coercion …
They had come from famine and from difficulty …
from wars and threats of wars.…
And they sought a new life in a new land.
Religious liberty to worship God according to the dictates of one’s own conscience
and equal opportunity for all men …
These are the twin pillars of the American Dream.
Now a Covenant Nation is one that recognizes its dependence upon God and its responsibility toward God.
This nation was so born.
God was recognized as the source of human rights.
The Declaration of Independence says so.
A Covenant Nation is one which recognizes that God and His purposes stand over and above the nation … that the highest role a nation can play is to reflect God’s righteousness in national policy.
That is what Bradford and Carver certainly intended.
That is what Roger Williams sought, when he set up his settlement in Providence, Rhode Island.
That is what William Penn was striving after in Pennsylvania.
That is what they wanted in Maryland, when, in 1649, the Maryland Act of Toleration set it down in writing. That is what Thomas Jefferson was striving after when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
That is what they fought for too.
You can trace it from Bunker Hill
from Lexington and Concord
down through Valley Forge.…
They were concerned about rights.
These free men who had burlap wrapped around their feet, as they marched through the snow,
who carefully hoarded their gunpowder and clutched their muskets under their tattered uniforms to keep them dry.…
They were concerned about the rights of free men.
They made the first down-payments there—down-payments that have been kept up to this good day …
through Château-Thierry and the Argonne …
to Anzio and Cassino …
at Saint-Lo and Bastogne …
at Tarawa and Iwo Jima …
at Saipan and Guadalcanal.…
There have been periods in our history when the American Dream has faded and grown dim.
Today there is real danger that the American Dream will become the Forgotten Dream.
For freedom is not the right to do as one pleases but the opportunity to please to do what is right.
The Founding Fathers sought freedom …
not from law but freedom in law;
not freedom from government—but freedom in government;
not freedom from speech—but freedom in speech;
not freedom from the press—but freedom in the press;
not freedom from religion—but freedom in religion.
We need to ponder these things today.
Our standard of values is out of focus.
We boast that many of our national leaders came out of country schoolhouses.
Yet the average country school teacher makes $1,500 a year, while we pay Big League baseball players $60,000 to $80,000 a year.
I, for one, enjoy baseball, but is hitting home runs more important than giving boys and girls an education?
It is a strange commentary on our standard of values that lobbyists who try to influence legislation get more money than the men who write it.
There is something wrong with a standard of values that gives a radio comedian a million dollars and a high school teacher two thousand.
The reward is greater for making people laugh than it is for making people think.
Again, no nation on earth has more laws, and yet more lawlessness than this nation.
There exists a current philosophy which you and I have accepted, more or less, that
if we don’t like a law, we need feel no obligation to keep it.
Any philosophy which thus makes the will of the people its norm for morality and righteousness is a false philosophy.
The test, after all, is not whether a certain law is popular but whether the law is based upon fundamental justice
fundamental decency and righteousness
fundamental morality and goodness.
What we need is not law enforcement—but law observance.
In a modern society there is no real freedom from law. There is only freedom in law.
Our government is in danger of control by corrupt party machines and even by gangsters—
self-seeking lovers of power …
a fact which should challenge every true patriot and summon all who love America to roll up their sleeves and make this once again a “government of the people
by the people
for the people.” …
For what is freedom?
Is it immunity for the unreliable and the despotic?
Is it freedom to take what you want regardless of the rights of others?
Is it a matter of getting yours while the getting is good? The story of the waste of this nation’s riches, for example, is a sad story of the misuse of “freedom.”
Consider the philosophy which for far too long pervaded the thinking of those who settled and developed our southland.
Their philosophy was “plow and plant
plow and plant
plow and plant, until the land is exhausted,
and then we’ll move farther west and repeat the process.”
Consider the philosophy of those who went into our forests to cut timber, feeling no responsibility to replace what they took by reforestation, so that we cut into vast tracts of good timberland and left it open,
with no windbreak …
with no barrier against erosion …
with nothing to prevent dust-bowl storms … and the removal of hundreds of thousands of acres of irreplaceable topsoil, which year after year was washed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Only now is the Department of Agriculture meeting with any success in persuading our farmers to adopt contour plowing
to put in windbreaks
to sow crops, grass, shrubs, and trees
that will tend to hold the soil together, and keep on the face of America that irreplaceable fertility which, in the past, has been her wealth.
I needn’t say anything about the extravagant misuse or abuse of our wild life.
There are many of you who, as hunters, know perfectly well that only the stupidity and greed of so-called sportsmen are responsible for the elimination of so many duck and wildfowl, once so plentiful, now nonexistent.…
All because somebody said: “This is a free country. I have a right to hunt and shoot and kill.”
Surely freedom does not mean that people can do as they like with the country’s resources!
There are so many things that are wonderful about America—
things that are gloriously right and well worth defending.
But there are also things that are deeply and dangerously wrong with America, and the true patriot is he who sees them
and tries to remove them.
The Bill of Rights applies to all men equally …
Yet where is the man who considers others equal to himself …
who feels that other men are his brothers …
who is ready to agree that liberty, except for himself, is a good thing?
The modern man will hardly admit,
though in his heart he knows it to be true …
that it is only by the grace of God that he was not born of a different race or creed.
“All men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence.
“All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” …
And this applies to red men
and yellow men
and black men
as well as white men.
There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that says:
“This applies only to men with white skins
or to people from Virginia.”
But we must confess with troubled heart that not yet are the black men in our land wholly free.
They are even yet half-slave in this “land of the free and home of the brave.”
A democracy that boasts of freedom and still keeps some of its citizens in bondage is not worth defending. Let the implication of this sink into every American heart.
Again, while we know that the lot of the workingman in America is better than that of the workingman in any other nation, yet we seem to have more difficulty in labor relations here than in any place else in the world. That is a paradox.
It is something very hard to understand.
Now before you get me wrong, I want to make it clear that I was a member of a union.
When I left Scotland I was a mechanical engineer.
I have worked in machine shops, and for three years I worked alternately night and day …
one week day shift and one week night shift.…
I know what it is to be unemployed,
to be out of work because other men are on strike.
I know what it is to work on time rate.
I used to average 10.48 pence per hour by time rate.
I know what it is to work piecework.
I know about incentive plans, and I know’ about slow-downs.
I want it clearly understood that I not only believe in, but I am willing to defend labor’s right to organize
labor’s right collectively to bargain
labor’s right to strike.
But I am also prepared to defend the right of a man to work, if he would rather work than strike.
I am also prepared to defend the right of an employer to hire whom he will, and to fire those who are no longer necessary to his operation, or who, by laziness or disobedience, or by any other cause, are no longer acceptable to his employ.
I am also ready to defend the right of a man to join a union, if he wants to, and also the right of another man to stay out of it, if he would rather.
I believe that is concerned with fundamental rights in the American Bill of Rights.
In the first few months of living in this country, I went to New York City to try to get a job on a steel-construction job.
They were building a skyscraper, and I was told that I could get a job, but there were two things I would have to do.
One, I would have to go to the hiring hall that night and join the union.
That was all right, I could do that.
And then I was told, “You see that guy over there and pay him $50.”
If I would do that, I would be all right.
And I decided I would not do that.
I decided that that was not my understanding of the American way of life,
that I was not going to buy a job …
that I was not going to bribe anybody,
nor was I going to recognize the right of one man to collect at the expense of other men who needed work.
The paradox is that labor in this country does not realize how well off it is.
Nor do the leaders of labor unions seem to realize that with power comes responsibility, and that these two things are joined together by the eternal laws of God. Apparently some labor union leaders, together with some employers, do not seem yet to have learned that to every right there is attached a duty,
and to every privilege there is tied an obligation.
We, in America, are today enjoying the greatest freedom the world has ever known—
a freedom that staggers all who will consider it—for we are free in these days to ignore the very things that others died to provide.
We are free, if we please, to neglect the right of franchise …
free to give up the right to worship God in our own way …
free to set aside, as of no consequence, the Church’s open door …
free to let the open Bible gather dust.
We are free to neglect the liberties we have inherited.
Surely there can be no greater freedom than that!
Significantly, religious liberty stands first in the Bill of Rights.
It is the most essential, the foundation of all the other freedoms.
Take that away, and eventually all freedom crumbles.
But the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would seem to infer that we will worship God in some way.
Now, this generation has distorted religious freedom to mean freedom from religion.
We find our Supreme Court now declaring it unconstitutional to teach our children that this nation was founded under God to His glory and for the advancement of the Christian faith …
unconstitutional to include in the curriculum of our children’s education any knowledge of God.
Today 85,000,000 Americans or 63 per cent of our population are without even a nominal connection with any church.
At least 30,000,000 children and young people are entirely without religious training of any kind.
But our children are souls—made in the image of God. These souls are immortal and will live forever, and the human brain is but a tool and an instrument which the human soul shall use.
In the name of God …
in the name of truth …
teaching about religion must be demanded and provided for the children of today, if this democracy and this civilization are to survive.
The idea may be abroad in some quarters that democracy is the thing that must be preserved …
and that God is to be brought in as its servant.
We must not get the cart before the horse.
The plea of the Church today is not that people shall call upon God to return to democracy and bless it …
But rather that we shall together cause our democracy to return to God and be blessed.
Let us remember that we are a republic under God.
Let us remember that each of the metal coins we jingle in our pockets bears the inscription
“In God We Trust.”
Is that just blasphemy?
What does it mean to trust in God?
Certainly no conception of trust in God can make any sense which assumes that He will prosper our ways or bless us,
until our ways become His ways …
until we begin to keep the conditions He has specifically laid down for national blessing.
The blessing of peace is not a product of politics—but a fruit of righteousness.
God’s order is always righteousness and peace—
not peace and righteousness.
The Bible has been telling us that for centuries.
When will we learn it?
Desperately we need a return to government by principles rather than by politics.
But where are the principles evident in the events of this present hour?
Peace is not made by compromise.
It does not grow out of expediency.
Peace is not a flower growing in the world’s formal garden.
It is rather a product of the blacksmith’s forge—
hammered out on the anvils of sacrifice and suffering …
heated in the fires of devotion to righteousness …
tempered in the oil of mercy and goodness …
Peace is a costly thing.
Now, there are only two nations in the world today capable of shouldering world responsibility for peace. One of them, the United States of America, shies away from it.
She does not want it …
She does not seek it …
The idea is distasteful; her instinct is to withdraw. The other, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is eager for it, plotting and planning for it, and has openly announced its intention to have it at whatever cost.
Now the choice is clear.
Either we withdraw and let the Russians do it, or we assume it, unwilling and reluctant though we are. But the price of world leadership is high.
Deep in our hearts we know that we are not good enough for it.
The call is therefore for Christian men and women, of every communion, to become fighters for peace practitioners for righteousness.
Every Catholic and Protestant, who owns the name of Jesus, must fight together to make America good enough to lead the world,
to make the American Dream of equal opportunity for all men come true.
Nonetheless, I believe that the dream has been glimpsed by enough people
and is deep enough in the heart of the average citizen
to shape America’s future and make the dream come true.
We have already done a great deal for the rest of the world.
Let no man minimize our gifts.
But they are not enough.
We have to give more, and I do not mean more dollars.
I do not mean more tractors.
I do not mean more guns.
We have to give more of the only thing, after all, that makes our life different from theirs, namely, our ideals
our philosophy of life
our concept of human dignity
our Bill of Rights
our American Dream.
That is what we have to export—
That is what we have to give to the French
and the Italians
and the British
and the Belgians
and the Dutch.
That is what we have to give to the Czechs
and the Slovaks.
If we can somehow sit down with their governments and say, “Now, look here, rich American blood was poured out to make possible your establishing this kind of government.
We don’t mean that you have got to copy ours, but you have to make it possible for a man living within the borders of Greece to have the same opportunities that a man has in the state of Missouri.”
Three hundred thousand Americans did not die in the Second World War merely to see conditions develop again that will make necessary another war.
That is what we fought for, because we found out that if there is a denial of personal liberty in Athens
or in Prague
or in Amsterdam
or in Edinburgh,
there is a restriction of personal liberty in Boston and Charleston.
We found out that what happened on the banks of the Yangtze River affects the farmer over in Stark County
or the man who makes shoes in St. Louis or Massachusetts.
It affects Joe Doaks, with a cigar stuck in his mouth, sitting out there in the bleachers in the ball park yelling for his club.
These are the things America has to export, and perhaps that is the reason why Almighty God, with the hand of Providence, guided this nation.
He has made and preserved our nation …
maybe that is the reason …
in order that this Republic of forty-eight states, in a federal union, might save the rest of the world, by giving back to them the new life that was forged from the anvil of sacrifice and daring adventure in this country …
America may be humanity’s last chance.
Certainly it is God’s latest experiment.
But we cannot fool God about our individual or national goodness.
Let us not be deluded into thinking we can fool ourselves.
And so I come to my text—2 Chronicles 7:14.
It is God’s word for America today—
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
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